Updated: Jan 10, 2021
This year the backyard vineyard really filled out. We got our first small harvest of both red and white wine grapes. I am beginning to learn the challenges for this growing region (Pittsburgh, PA), along with which grapes seem to be at home here. It is certainly possible to grow great wine grapes in Southwestern, PA but it is no easy feat!
If you haven't been following this project, you can start here.
My favorite things about the vineyard.
When I factor in my time, it would be a lot better to just buy wine grapes (which I still do.). My time in the vineyard doesn't feel like actual work, even though it is often sweat inducing. It is more of a purposeful reason to get outdoors. You never know what you will find when flipping through the leaves and positioning shoots. As I learned in the first two years, there is always some new pest trying to de-leaf the vines or infect the berries. It's me against nature out there, in the best way. Sure, I'd love to feed all the little insects and fungi, but not with my grape leaves and berries! Just like a student to teacher ratio might be important in a school, a human to vine ratio can make all the difference in a vineyard. I can spend a lot of time with each individual vine, helping them to develop what it takes to make great wine grapes. This just isn't possible when working with a larger vineyard with thousands of vines. The process can be a little challenging, but oh man is it rewarding.
Vine Growth Update
Most vines are around 3/8 inch to 5/8 inch in diameter at the trunk (end of season) and are fully filling the trellis, so the vineyard looks mature and beautiful from a distance. Every vine produced fruit this year and the wine from that fruit is entering the bulk aging stage as we speak. Next year, the vineyard should be operating at near full capacity which should yield around 400-500lbs of fruit.
The 2019-2020 winter was relatively mild, causing no issues whatsoever on the grapevines. On May 1st most vines were at bud break and ready to leaf out at full force. Things were looking great, and there were no signs of cold weather on the forecast, so I was very optimistic. My optimism was short lived though. On May 8th, we had an unexpected deep freeze with overnight lows reaching around 25°F. This wiped out all new growth with a total loss of about 80% of the total buds. Luckily the remaining buds and a portion of the secondary buds turned out to be fruitful and we did get a small harvest (about 125lbs). To help guard the vineyard from future late freezes or frosts, I installed an overhead sprinkler system which should ice over the vines.
Aside from the freeze situation, the weather this year was great (for Pittsburgh..). The summer was mostly dry as compared to the last few years which helped to keep vegetative growth in check and reduced mildew and mold pressure. The growing season was relatively long, with first fall frost hitting on October 31. This allowed everything to ripen fully without issue.
General Vineyard Tasks
In the spring the main tasks were de-hilling the vines and pruning.
De-hilling is the process of removing the dirt mounds used to protect the graft union over the winter. A grape hoe works extremely well for both hilling and de-hilling and can also keep the area under your vines weed free if you want a workout.
I pruned late in an attempt to delay bud break and prevent spring frost or freeze damage. When a vine has to spread energy to hundreds of buds, it will take a lot more time to reach bud break. Bud break generally occurs first at the ends of the shoots, then works backwards to the base. The buds that would make my canes (if spur pruning) were the first one or two at the base of last years canes. You can delay bud burst pretty effectively with delayed pruning but you never know how late a frost or freeze might occur.
Another popular strategy in colder regions is to cane prune instead of spur prune. This method involves a renewal cane closest to the trunk on each side, that is bent down the next year to form the new cordons. Everything past that is pruned off. Since the buds open up starting at the end over the span of a couple weeks, you are unlikely to lose everything if a frost happens. I did a little bit of cane and spur pruning this year. A good set of hand pruners is essential when pruning.
Once new growth starts, you can begin positioning shoots which is oddly satisfying. My trellis is setup for Smart Dyson, but for now I am only using the top wires and doing Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP). I feed the canes up through the guide wires as they grow and occasionally tie one off with a velcro plant tie or pull the wires together with a plastic clip. If the canes get too crowded, you can thin them out or spread them out (Or bend them down if you have a Smart Dyson trellis). If the canes grow too tall, you can trim them back. If you have excessive lateral shoots you can trim them if they get in the way. You want to make sure that the vegetative growth does not start to shade the berries too much.
If any grape clusters are dramatically off schedule compared to the neighboring clusters, they can be clipped off. Ideally clusters of the same variety will all reach optimum ripeness at the same time. If a varietal seems to be struggling to ripen in your area, you can reduce the crop load by limiting each cane to one or two clusters.
Many of the varietals that I am growing, favor long, sunny growing conditions. To help encourage ripening I pull leaves at or below the clusters that may cause shade to the berries. Early in the season, I do this on the east side (morning sun), and later on the west side (more about this later).
Managing pests is a large portion of the work in the vineyard and is most important from bud break to harvest. Without good pest management techniques I would not have grapes.
2020 Pest Challenges and Solutions
We have no shortage of grapevine pests in the Eastern US. The pests fall into three categories in my experience; vertebrates, bugs, and molds/mildews/diseases.
The most persistent warm blooded pests that I run into are whitetail deer, birds, rabbits, and groundhogs... oh, and small humans. At this point, I have got them pretty well figured out and crop damage has been very minimal this year.
I have 1 joule electric fence around the vineyard with a single wire about 25 inches off the ground. This has surprisingly kept the deer out completely. I hang a few bars of Irish Spring soap off of the end posts in the area that deer are most likely to enter. I think this helps to put the deer on edge so they don't try anything fancy (deer love trying to pull one over on you). The electric fence is on a timer to turn on shortly before sunset and off after sunrise. I also keep it active year round to effectively train the deer to stay out before they realize what they are missing out on. The microsecond jolt from the fence is very startling but not harmful to our white tailed friends.
Birds are notorious for picking a vineyard or blueberry bush clean. The red grapes are most appealing to birds. The evolutionary reason they turn purple, red, or black is literally to attract birds which are natures seed spreaders. In order to grow a small vineyard, you may need to intervene with this natural process. I use a Plantra Side Netting on the red grapes from veraison (when they turn red) until harvest. This has been very successful and I saw very little bird damage on the clusters (<1%) this year.
Rabbits and groundhogs are a relatively minor concern but they can cause trouble when the vines are young and establishing. To prevent groundhogs and rabbits from chomping, I used grow tubes on establishing vines. These really aren't necessary after the first season.
The bugs that kept me up at night were Grape Cane Girdlers, Japanese Beetles and Wasps/Hornets.
Around mid June, I was noticing whole sections of vineyard where the top eight inches of many canes were snapped off. It looked almost like a deer had caused it, but it was mostly about 7-8ft in the air so that was unlikely. I thought maybe birds or squirrels might be doing it but this also seemed implausible. That's when I learned about the elusive Grape Cane Girdler. Female cane girdlers will girdle around the new growth of a cane and lay eggs into those puncture wounds. A couple inches above this the first girdle, she will girdle again, often causing the vine to snap off... ughhhhh! A little bit of damage is really not a problem but if it gets excessive, intervention may be needed. I was getting to the point of excessive damage towards the end of June. Since we were long past bloom and the honeybees were long gone, I was able to suppress the insects with Carbaryl (old formulation of Sevin).
Japanese beetles usually come in two waves around early July and can wreak havoc on the canopy. They generally work from the top down and can skeletonize a leaf in no time. The first wave this year was very light to almost non-existent. I suspect this was due to the dry weather. In mid July, we were in the hospital as my wife delivered our wonderful baby daughter. Nature recognized this as an opportunity, and the beetles came in with a vengeance around July 15. I came home and caught them in the act as they had partially pulverized the top 12-18 inches of many vines. They like the grapevines so much that they will completely ignore any gardens nearby. In a commercial growing region, there may not be enough beetles to warrant spraying but in a small backyard vineyard, the entire neighborhood of beetles will converge. To eliminate the beetles, I sprayed Carbaryl (old Sevin) once again, which is VERY effective.
PS: If anyone has experience with the new Sevin formulation on Japanese Beetles, please post in the comments. Carbaryl only comes in inconvenient sizes for home growers now.
Around late September, I started to see some issues with yellow jackets and other wasps and hornets. This was relatively minor and was generally limited to grapes that had already been either damaged by bird punctures or black rot. I ended up deciding not to spray and figured the wasp induced in-berry fermentation would add complexity to the finished wine. In Italy, a little wasp damage is welcome and is considered to be a large contributor to wine complexity.
Molds, Mildews, and Disease
In all but the driest climates, molds, mildews, and disease will be a challenge, especially with classic vinifera varieties. Many modern hybrid grapevines carry a little more resistance but can still be quite vulnerable.
In the past, I have seen a lot of downy mildew and phomopsis but this year, that was not a problem at all thanks to my improving spray practices. On my radar were eutypa dieback (dead arm) and botrytus (noble rot), but neither were an issue. I did have a little trouble with black rot (sour rot), especially on my tight clustered Riesling grapes. Usually when you can visibly see symptoms of the above problems, it is too late to control it effectively. Prevention in a vineyard is achievable but eradication is nearly impossible once established.
To manage these problems, I sprayed every ten to fourteen days. If we had over an inch or so of rain, I would spray earlier. Early in the season sprays were mostly Dithane (mancozeb) with an occasional phosphorous acid blended in. This is very effective on downy mildew and early season problems. Around bloom and into the summer, I would use Immunox (myclobutanil) every other spray to prevent black rot. in July, I transitioned to Captan, and later to Copper as we got closer to harvest. When choosing a spray, it is important to watch the pre harvest interval. Most copper sprays can be used up to the week of harvest but linger in the environment much longer than the modern synthetic sprays that are used earlier in the season.
Improvements for Next Year
Next year, I plan on pulling leaves on the east side of the vines around bloom to improve spray penetration to the clusters, even on the white grapes. I believe that was the main issue with the Riesling. Commercial vineyards often use an airblast sprayer to get through the leaves and to the clusters. I use a backpack sprayer that requires a little more line-of-sight to the clusters to be effective. Pulling the east side will also help the clusters dry in the morning more quickly. I will pull leaves on the west side of the red varieties but not until it is time to put the netting up. This provides just enough shade to prevent sunburn.
The Fruits of my Labor!
White Wine Grapes
On September 15th, I harvested Traminette, Gruner Veltliner, and what little Riesling was spared from black rot. The Traminette and Gruner Veltliner were nearly perfect with a pH of 3.15 to 3.25 and around 22°brix. The Riesling could have waited another week but I did not have enough to warrant a micro batch, so I added a few clusters in with the other white grapes. I got about 75lbs total and scrapped another 35 or so of Riesling.
I was able to harvest these grapes at around 50°F, and brought straight to the crusher to make the field blend. Traminette in particular should spend very little time on the skins, so I pressed within about 20-30 minutes of crushing and gave a small sulfite addition to hold back wild yeast and bacteria. I let this juice cold settle for 48 hours in a spare fridge, before racking off the pulp and beginning fermentation. The yeast I used was Renaissance Fresco, which is incapable of producing hydrogen sulfide, but I had also considered Lalvin Sensy for its similar properties. I was able to ferment at around 55°F which really trapped in the beautiful aromas of these grapes. After fermentation, I sulfited to prevent malolactic fermentation and further preserve the aromas. From there I cold stabilized, and am just waiting for the wine to clear up completely for bottling. It smells and tastes incredible and is on track to be a real show stopper. Too bad I only have about three gallons...
You can learn more about this wine on my YouTube Channel.
Red Wine Grapes (Hybrid)
I have only two hybrid red grapevines, mostly for experimentation purposes. One is a Noiret, and I have a second Marquette. The Noiret produced about ten pounds this year and the Marquette about five pounds. This was not enough to do much with, so when harvested, on 9/30, I added to a Chancellor/Marquette blend that I had going fermenting from some Erie, PA grapes. The Noiret grapes were nearly black in color and average sized with very full clusters and good airflow between berries. The Marquette made very tiny, high sugar flavor blasters with large seeds and was starting to head towards raisins at the time of harvest.
Red Wine Grapes (Vinifera)
The red vinifera was the star of the show, and to me was the most exciting stuff to grow. I have four vinifera varietals, all of which did extremely well. To help ripen, I pulled leaves on the east side mid summer, and pulled leaves on the west side right before applying bird netting. The bird netting provided just enough shade to prevent sunburn with the leaves pulled. Leaves at or below clusters do not contribute to ripening and red grapes need a lot of sunshine directly to the berries to mature properly. Most canes were limited to one cluster, but I kept two on a few. If a cane tried to make three clusters, I pulled the top one. If I wanted to get really crazy, I could have pulled the wings off of the larger clusters and limited each cane to only one cluster but we'll save that stuff for years with a larger harvest. All red grapes were harvested on October 23 since we had a solid week of rain in the forecast.
This grape was nearly perfect at the time of harvest. Seeds were brown and mature, and sugars were 24°brix and a pH of 3.42.
This could have actually been picked about a week earlier which was surprising. It may have gotten an earlier start since the first buds were less mature at the time of the spring freeze. At harvest the sugars were 26°brix, with a pH of 3.56. The yellow jackets started beating up on the Merlot in the week leading up to harvest, which further supports my thoughts that I probably should have picked about a week earlier. I left about 50% of the merlot due to damage.
I would not have wanted to let this one hang much longer. Was 24°brix at the time of harvest and pH 3.25, but it was clear that the grapes were about ready to be picked. Stems were brown, seeds were mature, and the skins were getting pretty thin.
These grapes were absolutely beautiful. They were relatively high acid (pH 3.2), and high sugar (26.5°brix) which helped to round out the field blend.
I fermented this field blend on the skins with Lalvin BDX. I skipped the cold soak since a few berries had some wasp damage. Early in the fermentation, I allowed the temperatures to climb to about 88°F, then brought it back to about 76°F and later 70°F to slowly finish up. Several days before pressing, I co-inoculated with CH35 malolactic bacteria because it is what I had laying around. CH16 would have done the job just as good and would have been my first choice. I pressed after 11 days on the skins, and kept the hard press with the free run to build a nice backbone of tannin. Once the wine was off the gross lees, I added some medium toast oak cubes. This wine is wonderfully complex and is heading in a great direction. I am very excited to see where this one goes... too bad I only have about three gallons... dang it!
I am very happy with how this year turned out. With the late freeze, I was really concerned that the whole vintage would be lost but we did alright. Aesthetically, the vineyard looked amazing this year, and as always I learned a whole lot. Now I can't wait to see what next year has in store!
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